Jhe debate over Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is fierce as journalists and politicians depend on the platform to share their ideas and build their brands. Twitter is less than a tenth the size of Facebook and has only been intermittently profitable, which is a terrible result for one of Silicon Valley’s brightest product ideas.
Those who have cast Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as a disaster for democracy are not wrong, but they pick out three important facts. First, internet platforms have been undermining our democracy since at least 2016. Second, politicians have failed in their duty to force accountability and reform on internet platforms. Finally, years ago, journalism adopted the “pledge” model of internet platforms, making the industry partially complicit in wrongdoing.
If the deal goes through — and it still seems likely — Musk has promised to restore “freedom of speech” to Twitter, which is code for overriding user bans and reducing content moderation. Musk’s framing is ridiculous. The First Amendment relates only to government restriction of speech. Companies have always been free to set the rules on their platforms. A more valid complaint against internet platforms would be that their rules are ambiguous and applied inconsistently.
The real problem with Twitter — and with Musk’s acquisition — is the business model. Like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and others, Twitter uses algorithms to amplify content that increases user engagement with the platform. The content that best maximizes engagement is that which causes outrage and fear, namely hate speech, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Such content triggers our involuntary flight or fight reflex; we can’t look away.
Amplifying harmful content for profit has serious consequences. It gives disproportionate political power to the most extreme voices. This allows malicious actors to suppress other voices and harass those they disagree with, including marginalized communities who depend on Twitter to make their voices heard. Thanks to its central role in journalism and politics, Twitter managed to subvert democracy without being a commercial success. No wonder many of its biggest users call Twitter a “hellish site.”
I’ve spent the past five years trying to warn policymakers, journalists, and the public about the threat Internet platforms pose to public health, democracy, the right to self-determination, and competition. Since becoming an activist, we have witnessed ever-increasing damage: ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, terrorism in New Zealand and the United States, radicalization of millions in QAnon, insurgency and undermining of the American response to a pandemic. , all enabled by internet platforms. State attorneys general have investigated a wide range of matters, including some crimes. Bullying and suicides among teenagers have increased. Scams and criminal activity are widespread.
In 2016 and 2017, few understood that Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google and Twitter could cause widespread harm. Starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, policymakers and journalists began to dig into the culture, business models and algorithms of internet platforms. What they found was ugly, but the US government took no steps to force reform. Even Trump’s insurgency and COVID-19 misinformation, two of the greatest threats to our country in a century, both enabled by the culture, business models and algorithms of internet platforms, have not led to significant reform.
Given the extent of the damage caused by the January 6 insurgency and the misinformation around COVID-19, one would expect the government of a functioning democracy to take action to protect its citizens and reform a industry clearly out of control. Whistleblowers have shared mountains of evidence of harmful and sometimes criminal behavior by internet platforms, so there really is no excuse. Yet no one in a position of power in the federal government took action to prevent further damage. Not the president. Not Congress. Not the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission. And the voters did not insist that they do so. Wall Street doesn’t care about damage as long as stocks continue to hit new highs.
Journalists have done a brilliant job of highlighting the dangers of internet platforms, but the journalism industry has reversed that work by abandoning its traditional role as a check on power and embracing the culture of internet engagement. Headlines and stories reflect the pursuit of attention. Deference to power, and especially wealth, is ubiquitous.
A long series of political failures and widespread indifference to disastrous results have allowed democracy to deteriorate to the point where the acquisition of a mediocre company by a billionaire could finish it off. For that, we the people deserve to be blamed. We did not insist that government and journalism work on our behalf. Instead, we allowed them to be co-opted by the powerful.
Which brings us to Twitter itself. The blame for Twitter’s failure to achieve greatness should be shared by company executives and the board. Twitter could have been a bulwark of democracy. The founding management team created a brilliant product design, but they and their successors never developed a business model that allowed Twitter to realize its potential. The Board of Directors chose each of these CEOs. When Jack Dorsey took over the position, the board decided not to require him to be full-time CEO. (It should be noted that they are selling Twitter to Elon Musk, who is already the CEO of Tesla and Space-X, and founder of two other companies.)
Every Twitter CEO did essentially the same thing, expecting a different outcome. All the while, the council sat and watched, confident that no one would call them. Now they’re selling the company to Musk, who has given no indication that he recognizes Twitter’s role in democracy, let alone has a plan to fix it.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is not a sure thing. He has already violated a clause of the agreement by denigrate a Twitter executive. If the deal goes through, it’s possible that Musk will empire Twitter and that could help hasten the end of democracy as we know it. If this happens, it will be thanks to the accumulated damage caused by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube and TikTok over the past six or seven years. For this, we all share the responsibility.
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